HERE'S a nifty notion for meeting energy needs. Tap into the aurora borealis. Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska likes the northern lights power scheme so much he persuaded Congress to earmark $12.5 million of the Department of Defense research budget to support auroral work at the University of Alaska. That's just a small part of the so-called ``academic pork'' - congressionally mandated research funding - in the fiscal 1991 United States budget.
Every year, many universities and scientific institutions routinely condemn such funding because it bypasses the established merit-review process that assesses the worth of research proposals. And just as routinely, some universities hire Washington lobbyists and seek the help of their local congressman or woman to get a slice of the pork. When questioned by indignant colleagues, the pork-seeking scientists and university administrators ask, in frustration, what alternative they have in an era when only about one in four proposals acknowledged to have merit can be funded through normal channels.
This is a symptom of what may be the biggest single challenge scientific enterprise in the US faces: The traditional system for supporting research no longer works and no one knows how to fix it.
``The system is out of order,'' says science policy consultant William D. Carey. As former executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Mr. Carey oversaw the AAAS annual science budget analysis. This, plus service as a White House budget adviser, has given him a long perspective on the federal support system for scientific research.
At a AAAS research colloquium earlier this year, he explained: ``[That system] was designed to work in a rising research economy, and nobody can make it work the way it is supposed to under steady-state or ration-coupon conditions. ... It has come unstrung under the real world pressures. And because peer [merit] review has reached this sorry pass, the door swings open for all varieties of manipulation of science's business.''
Presidential science adviser Allan Bromley expresses similar concern. He calls the inability to support basic science adequately a ``very serious problem'' that discourages many young scientists. He refers specifically to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which fund most basic biological and medical research, and the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds most other basic science. He has noted that ``despite nearly a decade of funding increases at those two agencies ... during fiscal year 1989, for the first time ever the fraction of excellent, peer-reviewed, new proposals that were actually funded ... fell below 30 percent.''
Actually, the country spends a great deal of money on scientific and technological research and development overall. The National Science Foundation estimates that total spending could reach $150 billion for 1990. That includes state and industrial and other private funding as well as federal spending. That's a 1 percent growth over 1989 spending when adjusted for inflation.
The crunch basic-research scientists feel lies in the fact that their particular funding, which is largely federal, has not kept pace with their needs.
There is more to the problem than flat funding. The cost of doing research grows faster than general inflation. This is partly due to what Dr. Bromley calls ``sophistication inflation'': It costs more to use today's advanced tools and research methods.
An NSF survey shows that just the cost of building university laboratories has risen 50 percent in the last four years. This is partly due to added costs of complying with new environmental and safety regulations.
Bromley points out that scientists also ``are victims of our own success.'' Past research has opened ``an exponentially increasing number of exciting [research] opportunities,'' he says. He adds that more and more scientists are competing for the limited funds with ``about 87 percent of all scientists and engineers who have ever lived ... [being] active today.''
Carey warns that it would be foolish to continue to authorize ``big ticket'' projects such as the space station or an advanced particle accelerator without being sure Congress can fully fund them.
Both the administration and Congress try to cope with the funding problem in their budget strategy. But the budget compromise worked out this fall shows how hard this effort is. The administration got only half the increase (6.4 percent) in NSF research funding it wanted. And while Congress gave NIH a 9.2 percent increase - nearly double the administration request - it still is not enough to fund all good proposals.
In 1990, NIH funded only 5,000 new proposals. It also has tried to cut costs by giving approved projects less than the agreed grant. Congress ordered the agency to fund 6,000 new grants in fiscal 1991. It also ordered it to stop shortchanging grantees and to toughen its grant application acceptance standards.
The outlook for improving basic science support in coming years has also dimmed. NIH and NSF budgets are part of the civilian discretionary funding that Congress has mandated to grow no more than 5 percent in fiscal 1992 and 3.6 percent in 1993.
Bromley says he believes Congress has treated the sciences well, all things considered. But he acknowledges that the research budget has become a ``zero sum game,'' with tough choices for scientists. Looking ahead, Carey says the science-government relationship looks ``more and more like a version of `tough love.'''